The Magnificent Pussy Willow

Beyond their decorative benefits, pussy willows play another crucial role in the garden: the blooming catkins are an extremely important source of early pollen for honeybees, helping to stabilize the hives when they are at their weakest after the long winter.

One of my earliest, and fondest gardening memories is of the pussy willow in my grandfather’s back yard. There stood a clump of what Gramps always called “French” willows, which bore incredibly fat, cottony catkins – far bigger than any I had seen before. On our Saturday morning walks through the garden in late winter, this bush inevitably formed the culmination of our tour; we would pause here for moment while Grandpa inspected the catkins. Most often the result was just a disappointed shrug, but finally would come the day when Grandpa could merrily intone, “Yes, Michael, I do believe the buds are starting to swell.” If sufficiently advanced, a number of branches would be cut to take indoors to my invalid grandmother – the first sign, despite the snow on the ground and blustery winds from the north, that spring would in fact return and release us from the seemingly endless cycle of cold and ice that forms a Wisconsin winter.

To this day, I still appreciate the prognosticative nature of pussy willows, and I have always managed to include at least one specimen in any garden I’ve ever kept, even the tiny 10 x 20 city plot I maintained just after college. But recently, thanks to introductions from the Far East, things have begun to change in the willow world. A number of new varieties have appeared on the scene that make the plain green leaves and gray catkins of my youth seem pretty mundane. Species with much larger or tinted catkins, colored branches, or even variegated leaves are now available to charm the most skeptical of gardeners. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Salix chaenomeloides. The Giant Pussy Willow is a considerable improvement on the standard pussy willow (salix caprea) we’ve traditionally seen in our yards. (Caprea was Gramps’s “French” willow, in itself a better variety than salix discolor, which is native to much of the US.) The Giant Pussy Willow has dark red buds on mahogany branches that open to grayish catkins with a pinkish tinge. To 20 ft; Zone 5

Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ The Black Pussy Willow lives up to its name: jet-black catkins appear before the bright green leaves which are perfect for forcing. A broad shrub; 15 x 15, hardy to zone 5

Salix fargesii I first spied this delightful willow on a tour of the Van Dusen botanical gardens in Vancouver, and finally persuaded the staff to allow me to take some cuttings. The sight of this shrub’s purplish-red stems covered with large reddish buds is one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen in a later winter garden. Unfortunately, my cuttings didn’t overwinter, nor did a plant I ordered from Forest Farm (a source for all the bushes mentioned here) so despite comments that this plant is supposedly hardy to zone 6, I’m thinking more like zone 7/8. 10 x 10′

Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ This show-stopper is grown not so much for its delicate catkins or red stems, but for its foliage – the cream, green and pink variegations of this unusual willow will add a dash of color to the landscape on even the dreariest day. Zone 4; 6 x 8, though best kept smaller and cut back hard each spring for optimal color. (This is true of all pussywillows; only the new growth bears the much sought after catkins, so yearly cutting is required to promote budding.)

Last fall I heard about another variety: salix magnifica, with large magnolia-like bluish leaves and burgundy stems, unfortunately only hardy to zone 7, but considered by experts “to be the most remarkable of all willows.”  From you gardeners in warmer climes, I’ll expect a full report back!


The Magnificent Pussy Willow — 4 Comments

  1. Great article! For me, a sure promise of spring. I have a pussy willow in my yard that I first planted many, many years ago in another property and then rooted some for my yard here in Sagamore Beach. The catkins are pink and absolutely beautiful.
    Michael…did you take in the Boston Garden Show? Incredible displays.

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